From Real Estate Mogul to TV Entertainer

by Jancee Dunn
Photograph: Photo: Gillian Laub

But she’d always been resilient. As part of a large family, she quickly learned that to grab attention, she had to speak up, manipulate, charm and negotiate. She was a D student in school (and didn’t find out until she was in her fifties that she had dyslexia). Classes were awful, she says, but because she couldn’t focus on the lessons, her imagination had free rein. “Do you know what an advantage it is to be a dunce?” she says. “You’re a daydreamer par excellence!”

After selling the Corcoran Group, she jumped into writing a funny, juicy memoir titled If You Don’t Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails, ­& Other Lessons I Learned from My Mom. “That killed a lot of time,” Corcoran says with a laugh. “But I was working around a deep sadness, and once the book was done, I thought, Now what?” She reeled from one scheme to the next: A school for dyslexics? Renovating apartments to flip? She just couldn’t muster the passion to ­get anything off the ground. Within a year of selling her real estate empire, the woman who once coolly faced down Donald Trump in court to collect the ­unpaid half of a $4 million commission (and won) was as insecure as a teenager. “I felt sure I had lost my touch,” she says, “and that the Corcoran Group was just a fluke.”

But it wasn’t in her nature to brood. Instead, she puzzled out her talents. She had the gift of gab, liked to give advice and had always been a lively, informed guest on talk shows. Why couldn’t she be a television personality? With renewed energy, she phoned every network head she could think of. Recognizing her name, they returned her calls with gratifying speed and agreed to meetings. “I thought, Whoa, this isn’t bad—I’ve got some power here,” she says. She carefully prepared to wow them. Tapes of past interviews: check! Artfully crafted pitch letters: done! Selling was something she knew how to do. But each visit went the same way: An executive would listen to her spiel, then say, This looks really interesting, let me talk to my producers. “Then they’d say, ‘Listen, let me ask you a personal real estate question,’ ” recalls Corcoran. “Then they’d never return my call again.” Her confidence plummeted. She’d change her outfit 15 times before she left her apartment, and dreaded running into former colleagues who would brightly ask what she was up to. Her millions provided scant comfort.

Burying her anxiety, she kept plugging away at the networks. In 2004, Fox News interviewed her about real estate legislation and soon afterward offered her a regular slot as a political commentator. There was only one problem. “I’d never read a newspaper in my life,” Corcoran says. “I didn’t even know which Bush was in office. It was an effin’ joke, if I may say!” She and Bill were considering adopting a baby, but there was no way Corcoran was going to turn down the offer. “I didn’t sleep at night. I would memorize how to say names. It was horrific. I was faking this personality, but that was the only job I could get.” After she gained on-air experience (with intermittent stints on Good Morning America chatting about real estate), she contacted the Today show, armed with DVDs of her work. In 2007 she accepted a job as the show’s weekly real estate contributor—a gig she’s had ever since. And a year later, she published a nonfiction book about real estate, Nextville: Amazing Places to Live the Rest of Your Life.

Burnett’s audition offer—and subsequent rejection—came in 2008. Fired up, Corcoran banged out an e-mail ­response to Burnett, hit send and also had it hand-delivered to him. “What I learned in real estate sales helped me in the TV world,” she says. “Perseverance, breaking through rejection and going back for another swing at the ball as quickly as you can.” Her letter read, in part:

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Jonas Smith12.28.2013

The journey from the real estate agent to the TV entertainer might be the difficult one. I think being the real estate agent you have done a brilliant job.

Albert smith11.14.2013

That particular blog post is written artistically and it includes many practical knowledge for everybody. I guess you've carried out a great job of handling this delicate

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